A Not-So-Good Shooting Starr

Henry Starr, a.k.a. the “Cherokee Bad Boy,” led a legendary life of crime beginning in the 1890s and extending to the early 1920s. He also wrote an autobiography and starred in a film based on his writings.

Born in Indian Territory near what would later become Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, on December 2, 1873, Henry Starr was a horse thief, a train robber, a bank robber, and a convicted murderer. Interestingly, he wrote an autobiography and also starred in the silent film that was made from his memoirs.

Henry Starr was destined to become a criminal. His grandfather, Tom Starr, was known as “the Devil’s own,” and his father, George “Hop” Starr, was a bandit in his own right. Henry’s uncle, Sam Starr, also was an outlaw and was married to the infamous Belle Starr. Henry was part Cherokee and grew up in Indian Territory near the Arkansas border. By age 16, he had been arrested for bringing whiskey into Indian Territory, reportedly in a stolen wagon. He jumped bail and fled the territory.

Approximately three years later, Henry had a more serious confrontation with the law that resulted in him being convicted of murdering U.S. Deputy Marshal Floyd Wilson on December 13, 1892. As the story goes, Wilson tracked down Henry after Henry and his partners in crime had robbed several stores and train stations. Spotting each other at almost the same moment, Henry dropped from his saddle while Wilson remained mounted. Wilson ordered Henry to surrender, but Henry just “walked away.” Wilson then shouted that he had a warrant for Henry’s arrest and rode closer to him, stopping some 25 feet from him. Wilson dismounted, raised his rifle, and fired a warning shot over Henry’s head.

Henry returned fire, and a gunfight ensued. Wilson was hit and fell to the ground. When Wilson tried to load a fresh cartridge into his rifle, the gun jammed, so he threw it aside and reached for his revolver.


Henry fired two more shots. As Wilson lay there, Henry walked over to him and fired one more shot into his chest.

Henry continued his crime spree but was eventually apprehended in 1893 and tried for murder and highway robbery. During the trial, Henry claimed to not know Wilson was a U.S. Marshal and that Wilson had opened fire on him without provocation. Henry was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. His conviction was overturned twice. The third trial resulted in a conviction for the lesser charge of manslaughter, and while incarcerated, Henry famously helped thwart a prison escape. For his heroics, Henry received a pardon from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

After his release from prison in 1903, Henry once again put together a gang of thugs and terrorized and robbed throughout northwest Arkansas. He was imprisoned again in 1908. He used this time in prison to write his autobiography (Thrilling Events: Life of Henry Starr) and study law. He was set free by the state governor in 1913.

Soon he had committed a series of bank robberies, including two on the same day. Eventually, he was caught again and sentenced to 25 years in the state penitentiary. Amazingly, he was paroled after just four years.

Henry got into the moviemaking business (supposedly working on four silent films) and even portrayed himself in the 1919 silent film A Debtor to the Law, which was based on his autobiography.

But Henry just couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow. His end came in 1921 while attempting to rob the People’s State Bank in Harrison, Arkansas. Henry and his gang arrived at the bank in a Nash motorcar, and during the robbery, retired bank president W.J. Meyers, who happened to be in the bank at the time, shot Henry in the back with a .38-40 Winchester Model 1873. Henry went down immediately, was apprehended, and died four days later on February 22, 1921. The rest of his gang fled in the automobile.

Henry Starr was a legend. He was both an ideal prisoner when incarcerated (as evidenced by his repeated pardons and paroles) and the consummate bank robber when he was out, having robbed more banks than the James–Younger gang and the Doolin–Dalton gang.

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